Iranian Jewish mentors reach out to youth

A recent gathering at a home in the San Fernando Valley brought together more than 40 Iranian Jews to discuss issues of mentorship. However, this informational meeting wasn’t about matching up Baby Boomers with Gen X-ers to discuss long-term career strategies.Instead, it was focused on finding adults who would be willing to reach out to young Jews from mostly single-parent homes.

Volunteers from Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) organized the meeting as a special effort to find mentors from within the local Iranian Jewish community. The event, which successfully recruited 12 new mentors, reflects a growing trend among younger Iranian American Jews. As this generation turns its attention to charitable causes, they are increasingly breaking outside of Iranian Jewry’s insular circles to take a more active role within the greater L.A. Jewish community.

“There are many young successful Persian Jews that are eager to help,” said Eman Esmailzadeh a 24-year-old Jewish Big Brother and JBBBSLA liaison to the Iranian Jewish community. “This would offer an avenue for them to give back to the community by giving their time and not just their money.”

Esmailzadeh said he was motivated to connect JBBBSLA with Iranian Jewish groups, such as the Jewish Unity Network and the Hebrew Discovery Center, in order to break the community’s long-running taboo of not seeking help from the larger Jewish community.

“Those that might be reluctant to otherwise ask for help will hopefully do so with the support of community and religious leaders when they realize the importance of having a positive mentor in a child’s life,” he said.

Community activists now collaborating with the JBBBSLA said they welcomed the group’s mentoring program because of the dramatic need for adult role models for many children from Iranian Jewish families.

“We need good mentors because we have a lot of single parents, parents who both work too many hours, and some parents where there is a generation gap and cannot connect with their kids that are Americanized,” said Dara Abaei, head of the Jewish Unity Network.

One young Iranian Jew who has benefited from the JBBBSLA’s program is Eva P., a 17-year-old Los Angeles resident. Her mother died several years ago, her father and siblings live in Israel and she lives with her elderly grandfather. Eva, who asked that her last name be withheld, said her life has been transformed after being paired up with a Jewish female mentor.

“I was very skeptical at first when I started with my Big Sister,” Eva said. “But now I don’t consider her just a part of the program, I consider her my parent, my friend — she is and will always be my everything for the rest of my life.”

Mark Mandell, JBBBSLA’s director of community development, said his organization currently has more than a dozen Big Brothers and Big Sisters as well as Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Iranian Jewish descent. While the group has been working with individual Iranian Jews for many years, he said it has only now been able to effectively reach the Iranian Jewish community because of their mentors who are educating their friends and family about JBBBSLA’s programs.

“We have found that the Iranian Jews that have or are in the process of becoming ‘bigs’ are wonderful caring people that have a genuine desire to positively impact children’s lives,” Mandell said. “They always rise to the action when asked to help with the various agency programs or events.”

Big Brothers who spoke with The Journal said their lives have changed as a result of mentoring and that they were surprised the small amount of time spent with their mentees made such a substantial impact on the children.

“I think that a lot of people are afraid that by mentoring they are going to take on a major commitment, but it’s not as intrusive as they think it is,” said Paul Soroudi, an Iranian Jew who has served as a Big Brother for the last 12 years. “To me it’s very sweet when you see the little things that the kids do to show their appreciation for hanging out with them.”

Mandell said that JBBBSLA is in need of more adult mentors and the organization’s volunteers will continue to reach out to the Iranian Jewish community in order educate those who may not be aware of their program.

“We must first earn the trust and confidence of the community and make families and volunteers comfortable with what we have to offer,” Mandell said.

For more information about joining Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, call (323) 761-8675 or visit